Columns / Discourse / October 3, 2012

World Politics Corner: Dealing with discrimination, caste system in India

India has made big headway in becoming an economic powerhouse, but amidst all this progress, are some old problems still lingering?
Although India banned the caste system in 1950, activists say discrimination is still prevalent throughout the country in different mediums, from job discrimination to caste-based matrimonial sites.

The caste system divides people into five groups, with the lowest in the hierarchy being the Dalits or “Untouchables.” The name indicates the treatment, some say, because in the past Untouchables were literally not allowed to touch anyone from a higher caste.
As India continues to grow its economy, arguments against the caste system and forms of affirmative action, called “reservations,” are being challenged.

Some of the arguments against the existence of a caste system are similar to those in the U.S. against the existence of race discrimination. With affirmative action programs and added NGOs or non-profits aimed at recording and defeating discrimination, Dalits are seen as getting privileges over others.

Examples of Dalits climbing up the economic ladder are a key indicator, opponents say, in proving that discrimination against them is waning.  In the past, Dalits were left to menial labor or jobs considered too dirty for higher castes to perform.

Milind Kamble, chairman of the Dalit India Chambers of Commerce and Industries, wrote in Times of India: “Caste is losing its grip over Dalits because India is industrializing, urbanizing and modernizing. Dalit capitalism will accelerate that process and will accord a human face to Indian capitalism. Caste and capital can’t coexist. One has to give way to the other.”

If the “human face” is there, will that necessarily cancel out how that face is perceived? Activists are pushing for more changes in media as a first attack on discrimination.

Discrimination is not just based on the level of opportunity for hard workers to climb up the ladder, but a cultural distinction made by people.  This is the argument activists make when citing instances of discrimination in matrimonial sites, marketing of products and media.

Many matrimonial sites require people to enter their caste information before signing up. Products such as “Fair & Lovely” play into caste images of lighter skin being better. (Dalits are mostly depicted with darker skin.) Also, many political cartoons and characters of Dalits are portrayed as stupid and lazy.

Movie-makers try to address the issue through media, such as Amir Khan’s subplot of befriending a Dalit in the historical fiction film “Lagaan.”  In one scene, Khan’s character touches a Dalit character’s shoulder, and his friends follow, all joining together in unity against the British occupying force.

While the movie was a local and international success, the focus was on a united India — rather than just the Dalits’ predicament itself. And while the Dalit population in India is close to 166 million people, representation in parliament is extremely low.

As Dalit discrimination persists in (more famously) India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the United Kingdom, continually there is the question: How can we change the hearts and minds of people?

Tags:  caste Dalit discrimination India

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